January 15, 2023
Aggressive and violent incidents involving federal politicians have skyrocketed, with the Australian Federal Police last year receiving more than 500 reports of threats to the safety of MPs, the prime minister and the governor-general.
The incidents last year included a spate of online threats, letters delivered to electorate offices, verbal altercations and destruction of property.
The brutal murder of British MP Sir David Amess in 2021 led the AFP to conduct an internal review of the safety of Australian politicians.
Federal police have experienced an increase in reports of direct threats to MPs since about 2017 but the numbers have tripled in the past three years. Many MPs put the rise in threats down to a surge in far-right extremism and conspiracy movements.
In 2022, the AFP investigated 548 reports of harassment, nuisance and other threats.
The numbers spiked during the federal election campaign in May, with the AFP investigating a record 82 complaints and referrals. Two of the cases resulted in criminal charges being laid while the AFP is still investigating 14 of the matters from the election.
Liberal senator James Paterson, who requested the information from the AFP, said the numbers were “disturbingly high”.
He said MPs needed to follow security advice from the AFP and arrangements need to be constantly reviewed to stay ahead of the threats.
“Sadly we know from experience overseas that threats against public figures can very quickly turn into actual violence with tragic consequences,” he said.
“Unfortunately in this threat environment parliamentarians, their families and staff need to be constantly vigilant about their personal security and safety.”
Queensland Labor MP Shayne Neumann said far-right individuals and groups targeted multiple candidates in his seat of Blair during the election campaign.
“There was a rise of far-right and neo-Nazi activity to disrupt the political process and we saw damage done to political signs for Labor, Liberal and the Greens because these people don’t believe in a liberal democratic system of government,” he said.
“I hope that candidates and MPs will continue to be able to campaign openly and without threats because the contest of ideas is important in a democracy.”
A number of other MPs have spoken out publicly about threats to their safety.
A man last year was placed on a good behaviour bond after being charged by police for threatening to cut off the head of former Labor senator Kristina Keneally. He pleaded guilty to threatening to cause serious harm to a Commonwealth public official over the Instagram message he sent Keneally’s office.
In the same year, Labor MP Andrew Leigh revealed he was granted a personal protection order after serious threats were made against him.
In 2021, then-opposition MP and now resources minister Madeleine King revealed she had been forced to hire her own lawyer and took out a restraining order against a man who repeatedly turned up to her office and abused staff for more than a year, calling it “intimidating and frightening”.
King was also given an AFP protection detail when she attended an oil and gas conference in Adelaide last year because of the reported threat from some protestors.
In 2021, a federal cabinet minister was in Bunnings alongside their child when a QAnon follower accosted them in the aisle and abused them about mandatory vaccinations in a “very aggressive” fashion.
Former Liberal MP Nicolle Flint, Liberal frontbencher Sarah Henderson and independent senator Jacqui Lambie have also spoken publicly about being subjected to abuse or harassment.
Dr John Coyne, a policing and law enforcement analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said there had been a rise of “sexist and misogynist” threats against public figures online which had been fuelled by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Coyne said he had become increasingly concerned by the “normalisation of what would broadly be under the banner of hate speech”, with women a particular target, and Australia should follow other countries in developing a national hate speech register.
He said it had become increasingly difficult for the AFP to identify the small number of people who might follow through on their threats.
“The challenge for the AFP is trying to pick through all of this noise,” he said.
A spokesperson for the AFP said for the first time in its history the agency had established a dedicated taskforce – Operation Wilmot – to help protect MPs and candidates during the 2022 election.
“The Wilmot Taskforce focused on investigations into reports of electoral-related crime, including security threats to parliamentarians and candidates,” the spokesperson said.
“Matters referred to the Australian Federal Police under Taskforce Wilmot primarily included menacing or harassing telephone calls and social media posts.”